During the 1930s there were attempts by African workers to organise and reconstruct all fragmented African trade unions into a large federation of non-racial trade unions. There was a need for solid trade unions after the failure of the African-based Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). However, these unions remained lethargic until the emergence of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions in the next decade

The formation of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions.

World War II

In 1941 African workers continued to maximise their efforts to consolidate and bring together African trade unions to form a federation to be called the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU). However, these trade unions were not recognised by the South African government or the employers. World War II broke out on 3 September 1939 and economically and socially this played a pivotal role in the formation of CNETU. In the war years manufacturing increased immensely and absorbed about 60% of the African women workers. Industries produced metal goods, tyres and clothing for the war effort in Europe, North Africa and Asia. This forced people in the rural areas to move into the urban centres to seek work.

The government was thus forced to relax its influx restrictions and contrary to the government policy of separate development, the number of people in urban areas rose dramatically. While the economy flourished the inflation rate rose sharply - much to the dismay of the African workers. They expressed their discontent in a series of industrial actions and in 1941 alone, African workers held 37 registered strikes. The government reacted swiftly to deal with this chaotic situation. Trade unions were granted informal recognition and requested to stop the strikes. This was a major breakthrough for the African workers. Urban African workers who demanded higher wages and better working conditions were able to form trade unions. The most militant of these trade unions was the African Mine Workers Union (AMWU), which was formed with the aid of the African National Congress (ANC) and Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).

In November 1941 history was made in the Transvaal, which was South Africa's economic power-house where most African trade unions that had emerged in the previous decade were based. African trade unions also converged here to establish the CNETU. Two groups of trade unions joined to form the CNETU and this became South Africa largest trade union federation at the time. The first group, the Joint Committee of African Trade Unions was under the leadership of Max Gordon, the secretary of the Laundry Workers Union. The second group, the Coordinating Committee of African Trade Unions, was led by Gana Makabeni. Makabeni was the leader of the ICU and later secretary of the African Clothing Workers Union.

Moses Kotane, a member of the ANC and SACP presided over the inaugural conference. The conference resolved that if the working conditions of the African workers were to be properly addressed and improved, strong black trade unions had to be set up and guided by the coordinating body. As a result, CNETU was formed to address the poor working conditions of African workers. New office bearers were also elected at the conference. Makabeni was named as President, Dan Tloome the Vice-President, David Gosani the Secretary and James Phillips was the Trustee. Naboth Mokgatle was elected Secretary of the Pretoria branch of CNETU.

CNETU expands its support base

Immediately after its formation CNETU embarked on a drive to increase national membership. The campaign covered a wide range of industries such as iron, steel and engineering, mining, commercial and distributive trades, municipal services, transport, building, laundry, timber, cement and tile, food, chemicals, explosives and tobacco. Large and small trade unions, mainly from the Rand, also affiliated to CNETU. At the time, CNETU claimed to be have about 37,000 members from 25 affiliated trade unions. Five years into its formation membership rose to 158 000 from 119 affiliated unions countrywide.

The CNETU membership data in 1945 stood as follows: A huge number of members came from Johannesburg with 50 unions and 80 000 members. Port Elizabeth had 19 unions with 30 000 members, Pretoria had 15 unions with 15,000 members, East London 10 unions with 15, 000 members, Cape Town 10 unions with 10,000 members, Bloemfontein 10 unions with 5,000 members and finally Kimberley had 5 unions with 3,000 members.

The strength of these unions was put to the test when some of them waged strikes in their respective areas. In Port Elizabeth 200 Black laundry workers staged a strike after their appeal for a 2/6d weekly pay increase was declined. The strike dragged on for a month. Six dry-cleaning and laundry buildings were picketed by large crowds and delivery vans were stoned and set alight. Police also came into physical confrontation with demonstrators. Thirteen leaders of the strike were arrested under the Riotous Assemblies Act. However their charges were later withdrawn after the Department of Labour declared the strike legal.

CNETU becomes involved in industrial and political activities.

Immediately after its formation, CNETU participated in series of strikes organised by African workers. The disputes between African workers and government were usually centred on the issue of remuneration. In 1942 African workers lost their patience and took to the streets to demand a wage increase. This happened when the government failed to keep its side of the agreement it had made in 1941 that it would raise the salaries of the workers. About 400 coal mine strikers in Natal set buildings alight when their demands were not met.

In December 1942 CNETU played a crucial role in a strike that took place in Johannesburg. The union was asserting itself as a major role player in labour issues pertaining to its members. The contention was between the municipal workers and Johannesburg City Council. After a one day strike by the African workers the Johannesburg City Council agreed to raise the salaries of its workers by 60%. This was the largest increase ever recommended by the Wage Board. With this salary adjustment workers were to get 24s per week. Three weeks later Pretoria experienced similar action when the Pretoria City Council workers demonstrated to make their demands known to their employers. They wanted the City Council to act as Johannesburg had done. Unfortunately in this demonstration police had to be called in and fourteen Africans were killed and more than a hundred were wounded.

The situation prompted the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, which levelled the blame at the Minister of Labour. He was held accountable for allowing the Johannesburg City Council to make such a big increase in wages. Secondly the Commission found that if the unions had been properly recognised the dispute would have been settled peacefully. Three weeks later the Minister of Labour introduced the War Measures Act, Act No.145. With this measure the minister was trying to illegalise strikes by African workers and to de-recognise their unions. However, African workers demonstrated their determination and proceeded to roll out mass illegal strikes.

After its inception CNETU also developed strong working ties with the ANC and the SACP. The union was positioning itself in such a way that it received sympathy from labourers as one of the major role players in labour struggle. Though it was formed to address the issues affecting workers, CNETU had limited participation in political activities of the 1950s. It openly threw its support behind the demonstrations and stay-aways that were called by these liberation movements. In 1952 CNETU participated in the Defiance Campaign spearheaded by the ANC and South African Indian Congress (SAIC). In 1946 when African mine workers engaged in industrial actions, CNETU again expressed its solidarity with the cause of the African workers.

CNETU at International Level

Realising that their struggle in isolation would not bring forth the anticipated results in South Africa, CNETU began to forge ties with international trade union bodies. Influenced by the militant tradition it had developed, CNETU joined unions around the world in establishing the first progressive International Trade Union Centre (ITUC). The ITUC claimed to represent workers throughout the world. CNETU was again part of history when the World Federation of Trade Unions was launched in London in 1945.

CNETU experiences problems

CNETU subsequently experienced problems that culminated in its collapse. Four years after its formation it showed signs of decline and its membership began to dwindle. There were a number of reasons for this.

The first of these was the appointment of J.B Marks as president in 1945, in the place of Gana Makabeni. At the time Marks was the chairman of the African Mine Workers Union. Makabeni also lost the support of the most progressive elements within the Council as a result of the disappointing reformist policies he adopted. One of these was to work together with the Department of Labour officials. After he had been replaced, Makabeni tried to form a splinter group called the Council of African Trade Unions (CATU) with limited success.

In 1946 CNETU participated in a potentially crippling strike called by the African Mineworkers Union (AMU). The Union demanded a minimum wage of ten shillings a day, family housing, paid leave and other improvements; failing which a general strike would be their last resort. In June CNETU emerged to announce its support for a strike by mineworkers. On 12 August 1946 about 60 000 to 70 000 miners stayed away from work. CNETU decided to fulfil its pledge and called a sympathetic general strike the following day. The government dealt harshly with the strikers. The police were deployed in townships, at stations and at bus terminals. The strike destroyed AMU and seriously crippled CNETU. In the following year CNETU lost 22 affiliates.

Secondly, there were internal structural problems in CNETU; the federation was built on a shaky foundation. Most of the trade unions affiliated to CNETU failed to organise themselves properly, with members changing their jobs from one factory to another over a short period of time. Another internal problem was caused by CNETU's political position. The leadership was divided into three basic political orientations.

The first camp supported the South African Communist Party while the second camp supported the Trotskyites. Another group supported the African National Congress. This division was centred around what method to apply when waging a strike. Daniel Koza from the Trotskyite camp and leader of the Commercial and Distributive Workers Union favoured militant action. Koza and his group deepened the division when they formed the Progressive Trade Union Group within CNETU. This group attempted to take over the leadership of the federation during its 1945 annual conference but was subsequently expelled after its failure.

The third and final reason that contributed to the decline of CNETU was the legislation implemented by the government to regulate liberation movements and African trade unions. The first government measure that weakened the CNETU was the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. Most of the leaders of the trade unions were arrested in terms of this act. Trade unions were also banned. CNETU's final blow from the government was the introduction of the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act. This Act made provision for the establishment of separate conciliation machinery for Africans in which workers would be represented by the works committees operating under the guidance of the Bantu Labour Officers. This structure excluded union representatives. After the introduction of the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act, CNETU split up and trade unions were left leaderless.

It was only with the emergence of the South African Congress Trade Unions (SACTU) that the trade unions found a home.

It was a long, frustrating and painful struggle for the African Workers to achieve their objective to bring together all African unions under the same umbrella:

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